Project Canterbury

The Light of Melanesia
A Record of Fifty Years' Mission Work in the South Seas

By H. H. Montgomery, D.D.

New York: E.S. Gorham, 1904.

Chapter X. Motalava, Ra, Rowa (Banks Islands)

TWO clergy; thirty-four teachers; ten schools; one thousand baptized; three hundred, and fifty-two communicants; no heathen.

North-east of Vanua Lava, and some six miles away, and eight miles from Mota, there is situated the island of Motlav or Motalava. Not so extensive as Vanua Lava, it has been completely won in Christ's name now for many years. Adjoining it, and connected with it by a reef of some quarter of a mile, is the little coral island of Ra. People can at any time, I think, walk across from one place to the other, though of course it means wading at times. Inside the highest point of reef, a shallow lagoon of about a mile in extent separates the two islands. It is a good fishing place, and at times the natives attempt to poison the whole area of it and thus catch great quantities of their favourite food. Bishop Selwyn, the elder, I believe, obtained boys from these places early during his visits. But it may be a long time before one of these lads becomes fitted to be a teacher, so that permanent work may be commenced. It often happens that boys will only remain in Norfolk Island for a year. This makes them practically useless, and they quickly drift back into their old ways, especially if there is no school in the place. I believe it is not more than twenty years since a school was first started at Motlav, in about 1871. Now there is quite a large band of communicants, some two hundred and fifty of them. There are nine schools, one thousand and thirteen baptized Christians, three hundred and thirteen young scholars in the schools, including those who are preparing for baptism, which means the entire population. The number of those baptized in the Mission is one thousand and thirteen.

Since many are baptized as adults, my readers may well ask why not more than two hundred and ten have been confirmed, and are communicants? I have asked the question myself, and I think there is a feeling in the Mission that great efforts must be made to impart more fully that deeper teaching, which should follow after baptism, so that the members of the Church may be sustained by their full share in the Divinely-appointed sacraments.

I am not criticizing the past action of the Mission. I have seen too much of the great extent of the field to be ignorant of the difficulties they have to contend with; often the teachers are not sufficiently qualified to give the fuller instruction, and when the number of schools is taken into consideration, as well as the difficulties of locomotion, it is no wonder that much he would desire to do is still left undone by the clergyman in charge. As the schools multiply and the baptized Christians increase in number, it is certain that there must be at least two white clergymen in each group. At present one white clergyman has for his jurisdiction the whole Banks Group, numbering some ten islands, with their forty-two or forty-three schools.

But to return to Motlav and Ra. The principal figure in the community here is the Rev. Henry Tagalana. He is the oldest of a family of nine--eight of whom have been taught at Norfolk Island. Four still live, and are all engaged in teaching. Henry came to Kohimarama, in Auckland, in 1862, then moved to Norfolk Island in 1866, and remained there three years. After this he returned to open a school at Ra. He was ordained deacon in 1873, and priest a few years afterwards. He is a man of strong character, and much respected. He makes his influence felt throughout his area of work, and he often goes to Vanua Lava to inspect and strengthen the schools there. Just across the reef which leads to Motlav we reach a village where the Rev. Walter Woser lives. Walter came as a very little boy to Kohimarama about 1865. In due time he returned, and started a school at Motlav, his home. In 1886 he was ordained deacon. It will be seen, then, that Motlav and Ra are favoured by the presence of two native clergymen, one a priest, and the other a deacon. In Motlav, as in so many islands, different parts are inhabited by natives who have special dialects. At the west end of the island, at Valuwa, the people are different from those living at Ra, and where Walter Woser is. They are being taught by teachers from the neighbourhood of the two native clergy. As a practical example of the working of the Holy Spirit among these people, inducing them to think of their neighbours, and to take trouble inthehour of distress, I ought to relate how, quite early in the history of the Mission, about the year 1872, the news came to Motlav that the Mota people were suffering from a scarcity of food. Now, very little food grows in Motlav itself; it does not abound either in good land or in much water. But the Christians were determined to aid their brethren, just as we hear in the Acts of the Apostles the Churches of Asia made a collection for the Christians at Jerusalem and sent it by the hands of St. Paul as a practical sign of good-will. They made a collection on a certain Sunday, and having no food of their own to spare, they sailed across to Vanua Lava, bought food there, and took it over for the relief of their brethren at Mota, where the Rev. George Sarawia was struggling with many difficulties after the martyrdom of his bishop, and after death from disease and a hurricane preceding the epidemic had worked sad havoc among his people.

There are no very striking characteristics in the physical features of Motlav. It is, I think, larger than Mota; it has a volcanic range in the centre also, with flat land bordering on the sea. I cannot, however, omit to chronicle a story told me by a trader at Motlav. Some one was giving a lecture on the beauties of the South Sea Islands, and in the course of his description of them he said that the remarkable fact about these islands was that they were wholly surrounded by the sea! Any one who has seen one coral island has seen them all, so far as their colouring from a distant view is concerned. Everywhere there is a dense mass of the greenest vegetation. The general appearance does not vary in summer or winter. Big clumps rising against the sky-line are sure to be banian-trees. The lighter greens are pretty certain to bo cocoanut palms. Here and there trees of a very light green, or even yellow, are noticed. These are a kind which afford leaves which taste like lettuce, and often indicate from some distance the presence of a village. It is not often that in the Banks Islands any villages are visible from the sea. As a rule, they are a few hundred yards inland, for the sake of concealment, I suppose, and also so as to be sheltered from hurricanes. In the Banks Islands a creeping vine, very tenacious of life, overgrows all the trees, and destroys the individuality of the landscape. These creepers hang like a wall over the forest-clad slopes of hills, and give a flat look to the vegetation. In these more southern islands there are no open spaces of pasture land. Here and there, and often in the steepest spots, brown openings reveal the yam gardens of the natives. Except for fantastic shapes of extinct volcanoes, the visitor feels that when he has viewed one of these islands he has seen them all--the same green forests and the same thin line of coral sand along the shore, with overhanging trees. Nor in this locality is the coral the beautiful object that books speak of. I never saw under water anything except what looked like brown masses of rock with a feathered edge, and often the rock masses are like huge brown sea anemones. In Fiji and elsewhere, the branching coral is more frequent.

If you stand on Motlav and look towards Vanua Lava, you notice a hill, not far from the sulphur springs which send their steam into the air; this is called the hill of Qat. Qat is the theme of the fairy tales of the natives. Dr. Codrington says he is not a god, though he is more than a man. "He is certainly not the lord of the spirits. He is the hero of story-tellers; the ideal character of a good-natured people who profoundly believe in magic, and greatly admire adroitness and success in the use of it. Qat himself is good-natured, only playfully mischievous, and thoroughly enjoys the exercise of his wonderful powers. ... It is difficult for the story-tellers to keep him distinct from ordinary men, though they always insist that he was a vui (spirit); and though he certainly never was a man, the people of the place where he was born, in Vanua Lava, Alosepere, claim him as their ancestor." Dr. Codrington gives many stories about him as they were narrated by the Rev. Edwin Wogale, a native deacon now dead, who was of the Sepere stock. I cannot disentangle these to give an intelligible specimen of them in a manner to interest those who have not a minute acquaintance with the islands, and their products, and their customs. But it would appear that Qat has now left the world. It was from Santa Maria that he took his departure. "Where now in the centre of that island is the great lake, there was formerly a plain covered with forest. Qat cut himself a large canoe there out of one of the largest trees. While making it he was often ridiculed by his brothers, and asked how he would ever get so large a canoe to the sea. He answered always that they would see by and by. When the canoe was finished he took inside it his wife and brothers, collected the living creatures of the island, even those so small as ants, and shut himself with them inside the canoe, to which he had made a covering. Then came a deluge of rain, the great hollow of the island became full of water, which burst through the surrounding hills where now descends the great waterfall of Gaua. The canoe tore a channel for itself out to sea, and disappeared. The people believed that the best of everything was taken from the islands when Qat so left them, and they looked forward to his return. When for the first time Bishop Patteson and his companions went ashore at Mota, some of the natives now living remember that it was said that Qat and his brothers were returned. Some years after that, a small trading vessel ran on the reef at Gaua and was lost. The old people, seeing her apparently standing into the channel of the waterfall stream, cried out that Qat was come again, and that his canoe knew her way home. It is likely now that the story will be told of eight persons in the canoe; but it is certain that the story is older than any knowledge of Noah's ark amongst the people."


Two teachers; one school; thirty-seven baptized; five communicants; thirty-seven inhabitants.

It would be impossible to present a greater contrast than that-Tvhich subsists between two adjacent islands in this group--between Urepara-para and Rowa. Only a few miles separate them. The former is nothing but a huge volcano without level surfaces, except of the narrowest along the water's edge. Rowa is a flat coral island; all round it extends a huge barrier reef, extending for miles into the sea. Sailing through the channels in the coral is exciting work where it is possible, because at any moment one may strand upon a rough edge, which does not improve the boat's planking. Round the actual island is a stretch of shallow water, which literally swarms with fish. Upon the occasion when I visited these shores, I saw along the beach a number of men up to their knees in water, stalking silently about with bows and arrows, every now and then taking a sudden aim and shooting into the water. By this means they catch quantities of fish; and there are no better fish for the table, a sort of silver mullet white as salmon trout. The people here are all Christians, and are all baptized. They number thirty-seven; and of these eighteen are in the school as young learners. Their life from the Mission point of view has been an uneventful one. Those who have slept upon the island say that the mosquitoes are famed for their ferocity. Indeed, among the sand--for there is little else but sand--such creatures swarm in myriads. A clump of cocoanuts and tropical bush hides the school-house, but there are no gardens here. The people of Rowa catch their fish and take them over to Vanua Lava and exchange them there for yams and other vegetables. Close to Rowa we saw an island in process of formation. Upon the shallow reef we observed one solitary cocoanut tree, looking as if it were actually growing in the water. It is the nucleus of what will certainly become another Rowa. By that time Rowa will have enlarged her borders and will probably possess a larger population. The teacher here is a remarkable character and a great boatman. There is, I believe, one solitary point of rock on this flat sandy island. It tells of the centre round which the sand collected and the coral grew. Whether it is the top of an old volcano gradually sinking down I cannot say.

There is not much to add in regard to the history of the Banks Group for the last ten years; that is, since my own voyage. The Church at Mota that I saw begun was not consecrated till 1901. In the same year George Sarawia died. He was the first-fruits of the Banks Islands, and it is specially noteworthy that such a man should have been the first native deacon and priest also, and should have left a blameless record up to the last. He died on August n, 1901.

Two facts are worth recording about Motalava. The Christians of this island have taken up the mantle of Mota in their turn and have become missionaries. There is quite a colony of Motalava teachers on Santa Maria, chiefly near Lakona. Henry Tagalana is dead, and Woser is in charge. Poor Henry! The shadows gathered round him ere he died, and he ceased to minister to his people at the last. But his years of splendid work are remembered more than his error.

In Vanua Lava the peace of the Gospel grows, and fear of one another is departing from the people.

In Merelava Alfred Vaget is a priest, and the island prospers spiritually. Merig still remains a quiet spot, untouched by traders. Ureparapara has been one of the disappointments of the Mission, the Christians failing time after time to persevere. Little Rowa can now claim one of the wonders of the group. The little knot of people have recovered from the leprosy which threatened to affect them at one time, and under the guidance and energy of William Qasvar, their teacher, they have erected a wonderful church, a lofty and elaborately-carved building with an ingeniously-constructed roof. The walls are of stone with designs worked in, the floors of concrete, and the seats of the same material (made of course of pounded coral). The clergy testify that they are cold on the hottest day.

This group is of course much more in touch with the outer world than formerly. A trading steamer calls regularly, and the people can make money by copra. The last and greatest step about to be taken is the establishment of a central school at Vurcas in Vanua Lava for the instruction of teachers, as a feeder for Norfolk Island, on the same lines as the school at Siota. The first heads are to be the Rev. W. C. O'Ferrall and Mrs. O'Ferrall.

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